Orlando City overcame all sorts of odds in holding Chicago Fire to a 0-0 draw on Sunday night, overcoming 40 minutes of 10-v-11 soccer and 28 minutes of 9-v-11 after that to hold the second-place Fire off the board. It was the kind of gritty performance that can galvanize a team and build mental toughness that will prove critical over the course of a full MLS season.
But not only did Orlando City record its second straight clean sheet despite only playing level for 26 minutes, the Lions did it with a relative dearth of experience on the back line, where PC and Léo Pereira manned the left side of the defense at fullback and center back, respectively.
The fact that the duo possessed four combined MLS appearances between them prior to Sunday’s match makes Orlando’s resilient 0-0 result all the more impressive.
“Really strong performances from them again,” Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis said post-game when asked about the two young defenders. “Defensively I thought Léo positioned himself incredibly well tonight. PC showed the type of effort and commitment and resolve that he has every time I’ve seen him play.”
PC, 23, and Léo, 21, have still not seen the pitch for an Orlando City victory, but the draw under such dire circumstances on Sunday certainly feels like their first win in purple. After joining from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, PC had previously only seen the field against San Jose on May 17 and at Minnesota on May 27, while Léo also played at San Jose and then back home against NYCFC on May 21. Despite being so green, the two held it down on the left side, with Léo connecting on 87.1% of his passes while leading the team in tackles, interceptions, and clearances, even bailing PC out late after a poor headed clearance. PC hit on 85% of his passes while clearing six times and intercepting and tackling twice apiece.
It was the type of assured display in a desperate defensive situation that caught the eye of teammates like goalkeeper Joe Bendik, who had an up-close view of the two young defenders.
“I think they both got a shot at playing a few weeks ago and they really took it and then they had their feet wet they were able to come in here and play really solid,” Bendik said after the match.
In addition to the challenge of defending space when playing down one and then two men, the expulsion of teammates Rafael Ramos and, later, Antonio Nocerino, put PC and Léo through the mental ringer of having to adjust playing styles multiple times over the course of the match. When Orlando was only down one man, the Lions were still playing for the win, with Kreis not immediately sending in fullback Scott Sutter to bolster the back line and allowing Carlos Rivas and Giles Barnes to remain in the game with Cyle Larin until halftime. But once Orlando fell to nine men, the Lions were thoroughly hunkered down, parking the proverbial bus and doing everything within their power to keep Chicago — and league-leading scorer Nemanja Nikolic — out of the scoring column.
“When we went down one player we tried to keep the possession more because it was easier for us,” PC said of the change after Ramos’ sending off. “But when we went down two players it was more difficult to keep the possession. We focused more defensively because there were less spaces for us to keep the ball so we focused more on defending. That was our priority.”
PC and Pereira — both Brazilians — showed good communication through the evening as they followed the lead of Will Johnson and fought their way to the epic draw. While neither young player has still yet to officially appear in a Lions’ win, Kreis’ most important takeaway following the match spoke volumes about their contributions in a game where the defense took special precedence.
“We’ve had our struggles over the last month defensively and the fact that we can defend with only eight field players for as long as we did against a full squad shows that we’re capable of defending if we’re all committed to doing it,” Kreis said. “I hope that’s the biggest takeaway tonight.”
Those words would carry weight even if more seasoned players like Donny Toia and José Aja were in the lineup defensively. They carry even more after the performances of two up-and-comers like PC and Léo.